To understand how shrub cover affects the spatiotemporal patterns of the soil seed bank and to assess the role of vegetation in the restoration of desertified land in a semi-arid region of China, we investigated the species composition and seed density of the soil seed bank under and outside the canopies over two seasons for an age sequence of Caragana microphylla shrubs in the Horqin Sandy Land region, Inner Mongolia. The results showed that a total of 24 plant species seeds were present in the soil seed bank, of which 20 were annuals or biennials. The seed densities in the soil seed bank were in the range of 830 – 13882·5 seeds m−2 at 10 cm depth. Species richness in the soil seed bank did not increase as the shrubs aged, whereas the seed densities increased significantly. Five annual species: Setaria viridis, Eragrostis pilosa, Chenopodium acuminatum, Chenopodium glaucum and Corispermum acuminatum, contributed above 90 per cent of the seeds to the soil seed bank. On the basis of seed characteristics and seed reduction amount during the growing season, we concluded that it represents a mixture of persistent and transient seeds in different proportions. More seeds accumulated under the canopies than outside the mature shrub cover, but no significant difference was found the younger cover. These results suggest that shrub size and age had an important role in augmenting seed abundance of the soil seed bank but not the species richness. We confirmed the important effects of shrub cover on seed accumulation and vegetation recovery, especially the value of more mature age vegetation for countering land degradation. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.